Artist Statement

Anya Kavanaugh (b.1992) was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. She received her BFA in Painting and Art History from the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri in 2014. By way of oil paintings, sketches in both dry and wet media and digital collaging, her practice combines the languages of the digital and the real, the natural and the artificial, the superficial and the authentic. Her work utilizes the human figure in order to investigate the peculiar existence of selfhood vis-à-vis otherness.


I speak to and about Venus, Cleopatra, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, Helen:

Be as a tower, that, firmly set,
Shakes not its top for any blast that blows

Dante Alighieri, “The Divine Comedy”, Purgatorio, Canto V

Strength comes from persistence. Through darkness in the dungeon and through empty compassion, I maintain sanity and stability by wearing expression on the cuff of my sleeve, on the front of the canvas. Oversize scale enlarges impact and existence, and does not minimize experience into bite-sized pieces. Instead, it is overwhelming and all encompassing. When painting a portrait of an other I look back at myself in the moment, the future and the past. I see where I stand in comparison, which part is me and which part is other. You are invited to participate in the works by gazing, watching, sitting, eating, enjoying, rejecting, and finally contemplating where you stand.

Anya Kavanaugh
January 2017


The personal nature of the human mind is a peculiar existence. It can manifest itself in many ways–for example, through language and action. But what if I want access to a mind that is not mine? What if I want to see parts of reality that we simply were not bred to see?

Something beautiful fills the mind yet invites the search for something beyond itself, something larger or something of the same scale with which it needs to be brought into relation. Beauty, according to its critics, causes us to gape and suspend all thought….But simultaneously what is beautiful prompts the mind to move chronologically back in the search for precedents and parallels, to move forward into new acts of creation, to move conceptually over, to bring things into relation, and does all this with a kind of urgency as though one’s life depends on it…. One can see why beauty…has been perceived to be bound up with the immortal, for it prompts a search for a precedent, which in turn prompts a search for a still earlier precedent, and the mind keeps tripping backward until it at last reaches something that has no precedent, which may very well be the immortal. And one can see why beauty…has been perceived to be bound up with truth. What is beautiful is in league with what is true because truth abides in the immortal sphere.

––Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just

A purely aesthetic object is intended to be gazed upon and contemplated. During such contemplation, a painting’s self-awareness can create a contractual understanding between the viewer and the object about one’s place outside of the other, both physically and metaphysically. A painting enters our space as we attempt to enter its. We are from opposing worlds, yet come together to engage in a dialog about the consistency of the human condition through time.

A common contemporary desire–explicitly visible in the evolution of technology–is to create and calculate rapid progress. This is because humankind suffers from delusions of grandeur. Nature is unattainable and incomprehensible for the human mind. Because of our minuscule existence, we have no choice but to try and cope. We need to believe that we have some sense of control over the past, present, and future of our world. One way we do so is through the domestication of nature; potted plants and house-pets represent our subconscious need to scale down and bring the unfathomable concepts about the world into our control. Another way we cope with meaninglessness is by creating trends and movements. Defining movements–such as Modernism, Impressionism, Pop, Expressionism, Fauvism, Art Deco, Surrealism, Folk, Art Nouveau, Realism, Mannerism, Rococo, Baroque, Post Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism, Byzantine, Romanticism, Gothic–gives the impression that art progresses and evolves through time like that of technology and the sciences. Such a finite definition of art bleeds the creative impulse dry; it restricts certain time periods to specific trends and movements, when in reality, the practice of art, like that of time, is tremendously abstract and amoebic. The constant redefinition of art implies that the human condition evolves. However, how is that so when impulse remains the same? Rembrandt van Rijn, Thomas Gainsborough, and Frans Hals have highly impressionistic and expressionistic tendencies in their work, and early Italian Renaissance painters explore similar questions to those of the cubists.

I believe this desire for control more often than not results in the abandonment of slow contemplation of universal truths, specifically those related to the nature of the human condition; we turn a blind eye to the meaning of life, the inevitability of isolation, and the awareness of the inescapability of death when we concern ourselves so heavily with ‘progress’ and advancing our society ‘forward’. I claim that nothing moves forward. Instead, we perpetually circle around our small worlds with a minuscule understanding of time and space in a dance to avoid the question of meaninglessness, like active participants in Lewis Carroll’s Caucus Race. Alice, among other creatures, needs to dry off after swimming in a pool of her own tears. She was upset because, well, life is hard. Struggling to find her way through the nonsensical word of Wonderland she cries as a giant and sinks in her tears when she’s miniature. The Dodo, an ironically authoritative figure that serves as a stand-in for Carroll, logically sets up the rules for the race. The intention and purpose is to dry off the participants who were previously drenched by Alice’s pathetic downpour. After the rules are set the race begins. The competitors arbitrarily run around in circles, progress nowhere, and adjourn without any clear conclusion. Albeit the race seems completely absurd, by the end, the participants are dry. There may not be any logic or control in existence, but that doesn’t mean we live without purpose.

Throughout the entire discourse of traditional oil painting, subject matter and its conceptual reception by the spectator constantly flickers back and forth between inaccessibility and accessibility. The artist is perceived either as a highly skilled artisan and technician or a one-of-a-kind conceptual genius. Subject matter switches from mythology to the everyday. I utilize these binaries in my work in order to exploit their consistent and inevitable presence throughout the history of art and human consciousness. I think of my work, along with the rest of art and art history, as equivalent to the practice of cave painting. As the earliest known record of humankind’s creative impulse, the 30,000 year old paintings speak about the universality of the human condition. In the short time span that homo sapiens have braced this earth the creative impulse, projection of self and its perceived beauty has proven to be undying and unavoidable.

The expressionistic qualities to my work heighten my individuality as a visionary and as a painter; yet, by not signing the work I allow them to exist within their own mythology outside of myself. I push and pull the everyday and the extraordinary as depictions of fashion models are thrown into domestic environments. Deities linger among house plants, and house plants become deities.

One can see why beauty…has been perceived to be bound up with the immortal, for it prompts a search for a precedent, which in turn prompts a search for a still earlier precedent, and the mind keeps tripping backward until it at last reaches something that has no precedent, which may very well be the immortal. And one can see why beauty…has been perceived to be bound up with truth. What is beautiful is in league with what is true because truth abides in the immortal sphere.

I paint because I don’t understand the nature of being. I desperately utilize the dissociative qualities of art making and viewing in order to come to terms with what I’ll never understand. Escaping into art–such as Mark Rothko’s color field works–helps me understand the only thing I know to be ultimately true: myself. I know I think and therefore exist. Despite the utter nonsense and illogicality of Alice’s journey through Wonderland, the Duchess confidently claims, “everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.”

Anya Kavanaugh
December 2014